28 April 2017

In support of the Parks Board position Re: Vancouver Aquarium

Dear Commissioners,

My field of expertise is animal behaviour; especially, cetaceans. For 10 years I worked closely with killer whales at an aquarium. For nine of those years I was the head trainer and oversaw the operations of the facility’s marine animal rescue centre. During that time, I was a regular guest speaker to animal behaviour classes at the University of Victoria and to psychology classes at Camosun College. During my days working with captive marine mammals I was well acquainted with the Vancouver Aquarium and we shared information and resources when Gil and Stephanie Hewlett were heading the facility. Currently, I am an advisor to the Whale Sanctuary Project. 

I once defended the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity, citing the value of research, education and the importance of the public being able to form a connection to the animal through their personal encounter. Over the span of years; through my daily interactions with cetaceans, along with research and discussions with experts in the field of animal behaviour, I gained an understanding of the depth and breadth of their intelligence and emotional capabilities. 

The realization of the intricacies of their intelligence and behaviour was one that took time for me to accept and integrate because it placed my actions in conflict with my understanding and empathy. I had learned that whales and dolphins are complex communicators, highly social, cognitive thinkers with long term memory and express a wide range of emotions.  They exhibit enjoyment, affection, loyalty and they even display compassion and altruistic behaviour, are self-aware and have distinct and unique… personalities.

These are traits that humans hold in high regard and how we define ourselves as the apex species on the planet. But, if whales and dolphins share these same psychological and behavioural traits, why are we not willing to extend the right to self-determination to another species simply because they look, live and communicate differently from our own.

British psychologist, Richard D. Ryder termed the attitude and belief of human supremacy and dominion over all other animals as; “speciesism” and equated it to racism or sexism. I would like to think that as compassionate, caring Canadians, we would place the welfare of an intelligent, sensitive and social species before our own wants and desires. 

As you are likely aware, the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans is currently discussing an amendment to Bill S-203; Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act. An Act to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts (ending the captivity of whales and dolphins)

Those witnesses speaking on behalf of the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland of Ontario, who have spoken against the amendment, have touted the value of education, research and the personal connection that visitors experience when seeing the animals in captivity.

Whales and dolphins have been in captivity for over fifty years and have been observed by millions upon millions of people. If the claims that this “up close and personal” encounter educates and motivates humans to develop a connection and respect for these animals, why is it that the ocean environments in which they live are in such desperate condition? Where are the millions of voices crying out to save the St. Lawrence Belugas? What of the Southern Resident Killer Whales who are starving for chinook salmon, harassed by boaters; their bodies saturated with toxins.

There is a subtle and subliminal disconnect that our children learn from visiting whales, dolphins and other animals in captivity; that humans have the right to do whatever they choose with the animals. We can use them for entertainment, we can use them for experimentation and we can hold them in captivity under the guise of education. In essence, children are learning that animals have no right to self-determination and that we alone determine if and how they exist. Therefore, animals are expendable and hold a lessor status in our world.

The debate around the ethics of holding animals in captivity has never been more pronounced and especially in regard to whales and dolphins. This is likely because they are not a terrestrial animal and in captivity, live in a highly artificial environment that cannot possibly replicate conditions in the wild. Physical exercise in captivity is incomparable to their life in the wild where they travel widely and experience the exertion of hunting and capturing food. In captivity, their social behaviour is altered, in-breeding may occur, natural communications are affected due to environmental constraints. 

Successive generations of animals born into captivity will be further weakened by a limited gene pool, an aseptic environment, a diet supplemented with vitamins and medications to maintain their health, and a stagnant, unchallenging lifestyle. The physiological and behavioural constraints of captivity have stripped them of the challenges of life that strengthened them as a species and ensured their survival and ability to thrive. Future animals that are born into captivity will become mere charlatans of their wild counterparts.

For the most part, research being done with captive cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium has been ineffectual to the conservation of wild cetaceans and more often is a rationalization for, or purely beneficial to, their continued captivity. New technologies have made research in the field more effective and less costly.

Throughout the developed world, efforts to discontinue the practice of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity continue to grow. Ten countries in the world have either banned the keeping of dolphins or whales in captivity, or have imposed standards of care that exceed the viability of establishing a facility in the country; such as the United Kingdom.

Currently, the only expanding markets are in Russia and China. Even so, within those countries there is an increasing voice of dissent against holding whales and dolphins captive.

The Vancouver Aquarium is a well accredited and widely respected organization. Their Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is an asset and its education programs are world class. 

It is disappointing that even though John Nightingale has stated publicly that the Vancouver Aquarium will survive without its cetacean displays, he continues to resist change. Mr. Nightingale’s statement that they will have no other choice than to kill whales and dolphins if they can’t keep them at the aquarium, is an alarming denial of the other options available
The inflammatory statement made by Randy Pratt, incoming Board Chair of the aquarium, that: “The proposed ban jeopardizes Canada’s only marine mammal rescue program and eliminates our ability to save the most vulnerable of animals — those that cannot care for themselves,” Is such an obvious falsehood, it’s embarrassing. I find it very concerning that Mr. Pratt, Mr. Nightingale and Dr. Haulena are so desperate as to use exaggerated threats and veiled lies in order to manipulative public opinion.

It’s time that the Vancouver Aquarium put aside its intransigence. If they truly want to put the welfare of the animals as a priority, they would allow the belugas that were loaned to SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, to stay where they are and not subject the whales to the highly stressful and life-threatening experience of being relocated
If permitted to continue maintaining “rescued” cetaceans at the aquarium, I can’t help but wonder how far they would go in order to qualify an animal as unable to be released, in order to maintain their attraction at the aquarium.

Throughout the world there has been a paradigm shift in public attitude about animal welfare. In Canada, consumers have supported the phasing out of constrictive battery cages for hens and the use of gestation crates for pigs. Intolerance of animal abuse has never been more pronounced. Industrial livestock production is under intense scrutiny and in the U.S., animal abuse is a felony offence in an expanding number of states
What we are witnessing is a new epoch in human understanding and an evolving increase of empathy as science continues to offer new insights into animal behaviour. Public opinion is not going to reverse itself and within Canada, the demands for an end to captivity for cetaceans, will only grow louder.
Thank for taking the time to read this lengthy observation/opinion.  I welcome your questions or comments.

Steve Huxter
Victoria, British Columbia

1 comment: